It’s called 128 Beats Per Minute: Diplo’s Visual Guide to Music, Culture, and Everything In Between (Universe, 2012) and it was Los Angeles photographer Shane McCauley’s first major project with Diplo. Since 128 BPM, McCauley has gone on to shoot with nearly everybody: Tequila makers. Music magazines. High-end fashionistas. Standard print mainstays. And new media behemoths.
Yet McCauley didn’t start out like many other photographers. In high school, he listened to Jawbreaker, Fifteen, and Minor Threat. He went to shows in restaurants that never hosted another. He took risks and stayed away from doing things too safe. He has even said that he might have ended up dead if not for photography. In that light, it’s easy to see why McCauley’s work has a little more grit — to him, photography isn’t just therapeutic performance. It’s first craft then always, always work.
In this interview, McCauley tells us how he got his start in the field of travel photography, explains why if you go to beautiful places, you’re not always going to make beautiful work, and talks music — lots of music. Go to the end to see some of his favorite images paired to some of his favorite songs.
I love interviewing people because I love reading their stories. Your story about getting started in photography is one of the best I’ve read. Could you retell it? How did you get your start?
In 10th grade I sat in front this girl, Suzie, in home room. I had the biggest crush on her, and she convinced me to join photo club with her on Wednesday mornings. I pretty much would do anything to hang out with that girl, so I did exactly what she said, of course. I ended up getting kind of hooked on it. I liked watching images come up in the developer and creating something. I never thought of myself as an artistic person. Art seemed boring. I couldn’t draw, and at that time I had some sort of notion that you had to draw in order to make art. I was starting to make music at this time also but, again, didn’t put that into a category with art. I started out kinda bad at photography. It was all technique to me at first. Just trying to get it in focus, trying to expose right. I thought of it as more of a craft. I still think of it as more craft than art, but too often today, craft is not enough.
From there, I graduated high school and saved up money working in a pizza joint 70ish hours a week for about a year and went to photo school. My aspirations at this point in my life was to get a job working in a photo lab, or maybe shoot weddings, or senior portraits in my hometown. I grew up pretty blue collar, and it was a hard sell to my dad to go to school for photography at all. He found it impractical. I had to sell it to the old man as craft and not art. He had a friend that lived out in rural Pennsylvania with us that called himself a cinematographer. The guy never worked, though, and in my dad’s mind that was gonna happen to me also. Anyway, I actually dropped out of photo school. I lasted there 3 of the 4 semesters. I had run out of money, and I had felt I had learned enough to get by, and the degree didn’t mean too much anyway. Though while in photo school, I met a girl that convinced me to aim a little higher than working in a photo lab, and I am really glad she did.
My first job was working as a part-time wedding photographer. I supplemented my income delivering pizzas at night. After about two years of that, I got a job managing a commercial studio in a nearby town. A few years of that, I went to Philly and started shooting indie bands and rappers. It was around this time that I started going to Hollertronix, and I met Diplo shooting an article for the FADER. I moved to LA for a couple of years and assisted and digital-teched for a ton of photographers. I came back and started shooting full time in NYC for about seven years before coming back to LA about six months ago.
You also say that you would have probably died – or be dying at some boring job, getting fatter and fatter every day – without photography. Why has photography been such a positive influence in your life? How does photography keep you alive?
I think it has to do with some decisions I made when I was younger. I took on a set of beliefs and decided that I wanted to be a certain kind of person. I also just took a lot of risks and try to stay away from doing things too safe. Sometimes that works out well and sometimes it doesn’t, but as the saying goes, you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Part of why I became a photographer is that I wanted to travel and see the world. If anything, that exposure that I have gotten by meeting so many people and experiencing so many cultures is what drives me. It’s the challenge of doing my job. Its almost never the same thing twice. It’s a new obstacle every day, and that keeps things interesting.
Does photography come easily to you?
It does now but it hasn’t always. I definitely feel like it took me a few years to know what it was that I wanted my photography to be. I used to try a lot of different kinds of styles and photographed to match trends and just take every job and do whatever I could to make money. I am not really all about that anymore. There is just certain things you want to propagate into the world and some things you don’t.
Were you ever unsure of your talents?
Yeah I have been. I feel good now, but a few years ago after the recession hit, I lost a lot of clients from things moving in-house and re-structuring. There was a point that I thought it was time to get into something else. However, I realized that this was the only thing I have ever done in my entire adult life, and I am not really qualified to do anything else, so I stuck it out and I am glad I did now.
You say that if you had to choose, you’d pick your landscapes above all the rest. I love your landscapes. This one is so goddamn beautiful. You have great eye for discovering light. Could you explain how this image was made from start to finish?
This is at the Grandview Hotel in Beitou Hot Springs area in the hills on the edge of Taipei. Taipei is a city that doesn’t get enough attention as a tourist destination from the West. This hotel was designed by the same architect that designed Taipei 101. The entire thing is made of brown sand stone and it has natural hot springs running through every room in the hotel. The reason I was here was it was part of an assignment for United Airlines magazine Hemispheres.The hotel is placed on top of a mountain facing west for the sunset. It was just good timing really. One of my first photo instructors in college said of my work on the first day of class, “If you go to beautiful places, you are gonna take beautiful pictures.” And he’s right, but something has to be said for knowing what is beautiful and what is not if that makes any sense.
Again, such beautiful light, light that belongs in a poem — or film. I’d imagine this photograph reflects how you see the natural world. Do you think your way of seeing developed because you grew up in Lancaster?* Perhaps living in a desert helped you see the natural world better, appreciate it more, because you’ve learned to not take it for granted. What do you think?
Well for starters I love that you think its Lancaster, California and not Lancaster, Pennsylvania. You would upset the people of Lancaster, Pennsylvania greatly with that! I grew up in an Amish farming community. This brings up an interesting point because growing up, I never thought of Lancaster as beautiful. It seems mundane. When I go back now I appreciate it so much more. It’s a little bit trapped in a time when the world was so much simpler. There’s gorgeous rolling hills and hand built towering barns. Along with trees, lakes and creeks. I find my stress level diminishes by 300% when ever I get back. I often wonder why I force myself to live any other way.
We haven’t talked about music. Music is really important to you. You once played guitar in a punk band, you’ve travelled the world with Diplo, you’ve directed music videos. How did music become such an important influence in your life? Does it influence how you approach shooting?
With zero doubt. I would likely not be a photographer if it was not for music. I was around 14 and a few kids in my high school had punk bands influenced mostly by DC hardcore bands. I went to an all ages show they played at a restaurant in town (the first and last one there of course). I liked the energy and the community and everything about that night. It’s still sort of crazy that in my little town in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, there was a thriving punk scene. So I bought my friends records and then I realized that they were influenced by bands like Fugazi, Jawbreaker, Fifteen, Lungfish and Minor Threat. These bands all had clear philosophies and political ideologies. It opened me up to everything from politics, skateboarding, art and eventually, photography. Without being exposed to all of this, I am not sure what I would have ended up doing with my life.
I used to play drums in a very shitty band in high school. Despite our shittyness, we would somehow reach these very special moments in improvisation: moments when we communicated in a form beyond words and thought, moments when pure emotions broke through normal, everyday expression. Have you found moments like these while shooting?
I played in a few bands like that for sure. I have always been at my best while improvising in music. I feed off of everyone else. I get inspired by everyone else. I will see a chord progression and know what I want to do as a melodic counterpoint almost immediately. I think this is what attracts me to photography. I don’t create well in an absolute vacuum, I need a starting point and from there I can create and improve on ideas. This is essentially how I photograph also. I welcome the challenge of being given a certain set of parameters and having to create within those parameters. It’s what I do best.
More music – I think this song, “Schaffino”, serves as a great theme song to your work, especially the song’s ending (1:30 – 2:20). If you had to choose a few song-and-image complements in your work, which would they be? Any last words?
It’s funny that you pick this song. I had a band in Lancaster 15 or so years ago that was just me and two of my roommates. We would jam in the basement after work to blow off steam and we sounded essentially like this song.
This song-image game is hard. Best shot:
Be sure to check out all of Shane’s travel photography work on his website!